Mount Athos
Perceptions of the Holy Mountain


Some Pilgrims and Travellers of the 19th and 20th Centuries

by Michael Llewellyn Smith
author of The Great Island, Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor 1919-1922, Olympics in Athens 1896: the Invention of the Modern Olympic Games. and Athens: a Cultura l and Literary History

What do we ask of a good travel book? We want to be entertained, certainly, with the experiences of the writer - whether out of the ordinary, or the ordinary transmuted by a perceptive sensibility. We want to be instructed, to be shown something strange and different from our normal experience. As well as learning some of the history and customs, we want to meet some of the people of the country. We want to warm to the writer as a person. We donıt object to the vicarious whiff of danger.

We find these ingredients, in greater or lesser measure, in many books about Greece. Asked for their favourite, many people would name one of Patrick Leigh Fermorıs books. They entertain while conveying not just a lot of information, but also the witty, erudite but at the same time boyish and out of door personality of the author.

Books about the Holy Mountain are a sub-species of books about Greece, but they are also different. Or they should be different. This is because the essence of the Holy Mountain is the experience of the monks. In one sense Mt Athos is an ideal subject for a ³travel writer: very beautiful, quite hard to get to, odd customs and food, exotic figures in a rich architectural and natural landscape; and with a fine mountain peak to cap it all.

But any writer, however skilful, who conveys all this but no more, will seem to some readers to have missed the point.

To convey that essence, you may say, one would have to be a monk. I donıt think so. There are aspects of the reality of life on the Holy Mountain which only the monk who lives it can experience and convey. But for the reader in Fleet Street, Birmingham, or Wimbledon, that is not quite what is wanted. He or she probably needs a mediator, a writer closer to his or her own experience to present the everyday reality of the mountain together with glimpses of the reality that lies behind and below the everyday.

When I first visited the Holy Mountain, with a group of three friends, I had read very little about it. I donıt think this was a disadvantage. It meant that the impact of the Mountain was unclouded by preconceptions. I expect our impressions were typical:

First, we were heartened by the obvious signs of the Athonite revival, and the sense of bustle and activity which accompany it, mainly restoration and construction

Second, we were shocked, but not really surprised, by the extent of the penetration of forest roads, and the destruction of the old kalderimia.

Third, I was struck by how different the atmosphere and conditions were in different monasteries. This is a constant theme of early travellers also. Conditions have changed within monasteries over time, but also each monastery has its own character.

Fourth, unlike so many earlier travellers, I liked the food. In this, I joined the earliest English traveller to describe the Mountain, John Covel, who wrote in his journal on Thursday 19 April 1677 that ³the best monkish fare that could be gotten was provided, excellent fish (several ways) oyl, salet, beanes, hortechockes, beets,.chees, onions, garlick, olives, caveor, Pyes of herbs, fakaiV, ktapodi: pepper, salt, saffron in all. At last conserved little oranges, most exquisite, good wine (a sort of small claret) and we always drank most plentifully. ....He is no Greek that cannot drink 20 or 30 plump glasses at a setting. It has to be said that Covel was being entertained by a former Ecumenical Patriarch who had retired to the Grand Lavra and presumably had more than ordinary resources.

Fifth, though we touched the spiritual life of the Mountain at various points in a number of monasteries, in church services and at mealtimes in the refectory, there was not time to engage seriously with it. So most of my companions then and on a later visit felt that they wanted to come back, preferably for a longer period.

Sixth: no one can fail to be struck by the natural beauty of the scenery, and by the unique aura of this place.

Early Travellers

I have chosen to concentrate on English writers of the 19th and 20th century because of the richness of their accounts and their closeness to our own experience. But the Holy Mountain was of course known to earlier travellers, and their accounts often strike a familiar note. These accounts were important in educating the Anglican Church and a wider western readership about the Holy Mountain and its institutions.

All my travellers brought their assumptions and prejudices with them. We need to remember that 150 or 200 years ago people were used to being rude about monks and monasticism. That is no longer so.The poet Peter Levi, who was at one time almost a monk himself, has said that today monks attract little curiosity and less hostility because religious passions have cooled. That may be so, but also today the sort of language used 200 years ago would not seem politically correct.

F W Hasluck, an archaeologist who worked at the British School at Athens and published a book about Athos and its Monasteries in the 1920s, confronted this question of prejudice. ³I came to Athos first, he wrote, ³with a strong prejudice against monasticism in general and Greek monasticism, as contemplative and non-productive, even parasitic, in particular; this prejudice was considerably modified before I left the Mountain. My quarrel with the individual monk was disarmed by the extreme simplicity and obvious honesty of the Athonite point of view.1 I suspect that most prejudices are similarly modified by the actual experience of the Holy Mountain.

One of the earliest travellers from the west was the French naturalist Pierre Belon, who travelled in the 1540s. His account of the Holy Mountain (only a part of a much longer book of his travels) became a standard work which others referred back to and corrected. He came to a sad end some years later, stabbed to death by bravos in the Bois de Boulogne where he was collecting plants.

The interest of the Holy Mountain in these early centuries was largely for specialists. The naturalist Belon was followed at the end of the 18th century by John Sibthorp, editor of the classic Flora Graeca. More numerous were those professionally interested in the eastern Orthodox church, whether its doctrines or its value as a repository of ancient manuscripts. John Covel.was Chaplain for the Levant Company at Constantinople, and visited Athos on his way back from the City to England in April 1677. He was the first English traveller to leave an account of the Holy Mountain and it is a good one. He visited most of the monasteries - cenobitic at that time - and left detailed notes on their architecture, relics, numbers of monks and dependents, tax paid to the Turks, social and working life of the monasteries, election of the hegoumenos and other information.

Covel himself was typical of the early travellers in his thirst for detailed information. He was not himself a manuscript hunter (though he did buy one) but he left interesting information showing that the hunt had begun. He writes of the Libraries of the monasteries he visited, ³All the scevophylacas were gone abroad, so that I could not take an account of all their books as I designıd; yet I viewıd several old and new testament in parts, comentators, homilyes, triwdion, mhnaion, church books, .... antiq. MS. I believe there are noe bookes of humane learning there left though I cannot be so severe as to say, (with Bel.) that it is excommunication for them [to] read them. I was informed by many that about 20 or 25 yeare since was one Athanasios KupriwthV, employed by the K. of France, who bought and stole away all that was good for anything of all sorts.

This comes from Covelıs rather untidy travel journal, which was not published until long after his death.2 Many years later, when he was Master of Christıs College Cambridge, he also wrote a more substantial book about the state of the Greek Church.3 An earlier account of the then state of the Greek church was written specially for the King by Paul Ricaut, British Consul at Smyrna. These works reflect the growing interest of patrons, bishops and royalty in England in the state of the Greek church. Ricaut included a good chapter on Athos, in which he called the monks ³for the most part good simple men of godly lives, given greatly to devotion and acts of mortification...real and moral good men, but such also as are something touched with the Spirit of God; whose devotion and affection to his Commands and precepts, shall carry them farther in their way to Heaven, than the Wisdom of the most profound Philosophers, or the wisest Clerks.

The Rediscovery of Greece

. Towards the end of the 18th century, a change can be felt in the literature of travel in Greece, which was to be felt also in relation to Mt Athos. It goes along with social change in England, and with the growing interest of a wide educated public in the state of Greek lands and the fate of the Greek people as well as in the antiquities of Greece. The publication of Stuart and Revettıs Antiquities of Athens in 1796 was a turning point. By contrast with the commissioned report on the state of the Greek church, such as Ricautıs, we begin to get both the scientific description of ancient ruins and architecture and topography, and the account for the average reader of the experience of travelling in the Levant. Something like the modern travel book is born. It conveys a new subjectivity: the personality of the traveller becomes a part of the story.

In the Greek variety of the form, readers learned to look for certain features: information about the topography of the land and the ruins encountered en route - Col Leake is the supreme example, and left a good account of Athos in his books of travels in northern Greece5 ; lively encounters with Turkish officials; reflections on the depressed state of the Greek nation; the ups and downs of daily life on the foot, or rather on the mule, since this was the means of transport and remained so up till the time of the 2nd world war; the skills of the dragoman; the food; the fleas that tease, though in the Pindus or Parnassos rather than in the High Pyrenees. 19th century descriptions of Mt Athos were a variant of this common stock.

Perhaps this new subjectivity owes something to Byron, who conveyed in his sparkling letters - and in his poetry - the quality of the experience of travel in Greek lands. He did not visit Athos, but got fairly close when he visited Constantinople in May 1810: I suppose it is possible that he actually saw the mountain from his ship the Salsette on the return journey from the City to Athens in July. At any rate he was moved at some stage to write a fragmentary poem The Monk of Athos. It has a whiff of piety which somehow does not suit Byron.

Beside the confines of the Aegean Main,
Where northward Macedonia bounds the flood,
And views opposed the Asiatic plain,
Where once the pride of lofty Ilium stood,
Like the great Father of the giant brood,
With lowering port majestic Athos stands,
Crowned with the verdure of eternal wood,
As yet unspoiled by sacrilegious hands,
And throws his mighty shade oıer seas and distant lands.
And deep embosomed in his shady groves
Full many a convent rears its glittering spire,
Mid scenes where Heavenly Contemplation loves
To kindle in her soul her hallowed fire,
Where air and sea with rocks and woods conspire
To breathe a sweet religious calm around,
Weaning the thoughts from every low desire,
And the wild waves that break with murmuring sound
Along the rocky shore proclaim it holy ground.
Sequestered shades where Piety has given
A quiet refuge from each earthly care,
Whence the rapt spirit may ascend to Heaven!
Oh, ye condemned the ills of life to bear!
As with advancing age your woes increase,
What bliss amidst these solitudes to share
The happy foretaste of eternal Peace,
Till Heaven in mercy bids your pain and sorrows cease.

I think we can be reasonably sure that Byron was not seriously tempted to retire to the Holy Mountain and take to a life of contemplation. One who was tempted was Jacob Philipp Fallmerayer, the German scholar who became notorious for his attempt to prove that the Greeks of his time (the mid 19th century) had no Greek blood in their veins. When he visited Athos he was invited to stay. He records that the pious fathers knew their man..I was to set up my abode in the neighbourhood of their holy society, not as a monk...but as an independent associate; and was to pass my time, free from all constraint,.... in prayer, in recollectedness of spirit, in devotional reading, in cultivating my garden, and in wandering alone, or with others, through the woodland thickets, but evermore in peace, until the thread of life should have run out, and the dawning light of the brighter world appear....It was, I confess, a seductive proposal.

Idyllic! A fortnight or so later Fallmerayer was writing, ³Thirty days penitential living on the Holy Mountain had forcibly reduced my spirits to a low pitch, and lent an impulse to the longing to enter once more within the sphere of European life....The eagerness with which, immediately after my journey to Athos, I devoured the political contents of the Augsburg, Paris, Malta, and Smyrna newspapers...clearly showed how empty and unenjoyable life would be without the range of European ideas.

The 19th Century

The best known of the 19th century travellers is Robert Curzon, author of the famous Visits to Monasteries in the Levant, which was published in 1849 and has virtually never been out of print since then. Curzon was the second son of Viscount Assheton de la Zouche. Educated at Charterhouse and Christchurch, he left Oxford without a degree when he was returned to the House of Commons as member for Clitheroe, but remained an MP for only one year before his constituency disappeared with the Reform Bill. He then set off on his Grand Tour of Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Greece which resulted eventually in his great book. He completed his life as a country gentleman, sorting out his oriental manuscripts. He died in 1873, bequeathing his collection of manuscripts to the British Museum Library.

The Athos which Curzon encountered had recovered from the traumatic experience of the 1820s, when the monksı sympathy for the Greek struggle for independence had led to Turkish sanctions, the billeting of Turkish forces on the monasteries, and a sharp decline in the monastic population. Ottoman rule, of a loose and relatively benign nature, remained and was to remain until the Ottoman defeat in the Balkan Wars. The establishment of the independent Greek state had reduced the material resources of the Monasteries when Capodistria confiscated their land holdings on free Greek territory, setting a pattern that was to be followed in the 1860s in the Danubian principalities, and in Macedonia in the 1920s.

Curzon was looking for manuscripts. As we have seen, manuscript hunting in the Levant was not new. The great Ambassador to the sublime Porte, Sir Thomas Roe, was encouraged by his noble patrons to look for manuscripts but found that the French had got there first.7 Dr Hunt and professor Carlyle inspected the manuscripts on Mt Athos in 1801 on behalf of the Bishops of Durham and Lincoln. There were others. What was new in Curzon was his acquisitiveness, his collectorıs passion, and his literary skill. He was after manuscripts and he would get them by all means short of theft. This passion determined the form of his travels and the shape of his book.

It is a lively book and always good reading, but it is the book of a dilettante and a bit of a poseur, and it does not give many insights into the Holy Mountain and the life of the monks. Curzon is in a hurry. He pushes on by mule from one monastery to another, pausing only to investigate the libraries and judge whether they contain manuscripts worth collecting; in which case he bargains. He has little time for the churches, still less curiosity about the inner life of the monks. Thus at Pantocratoras where he finds the tower collapsed and the books and manuscripts soaked with rain and irrecoverable, he writes, ³this was a dismal spectacle for a devout lover of old books - a sort of biblical knight-errant, as I then considered myself, who had entered on the perilous adventure of Mount Athos to rescue from the thraldom of ignorant monks those fair vellum volumes, with their bright illuminations and velvet dresses and jewelled clasps, which for so many centuries had lain imprisoned in their dark monastic dungeons.

Curzon often pokes fun at the monks, their habits, their food and their ignorance. But he also gives them credit. ³The monks are now in a more flourishing condition than they have been for some time, he writes of the Grand Lavra, and ³I never heard of their overstepping the bounds of sobriety. And he finds Stavronikita ³clean and well kept and its monks ³good old monks, but also ³unkind monks because they preferred keeping to themselves a precious manuscript of the Scala Perfectionis ³instead of letting me have it, as they ought to have done.

The monastery of Vatopedi arouses his criticism since ³everything told of wealth and indolence and the Abbott was asleep and must not be woken up. It was like the court of a sovereign prince, with its great stocks of wine and oil, its Albanian servants and muleteers. Others have found something worldly about Vatopedi.

On Curzonıs own evidence, the majority of the monasteries were not open to the idea of alienating their treasures, even if the decline of learning on the Holy Mountain meant that there was no one capable of reading their manuscripts. He managed to persuade the monks to part with manuscripts at only four of the seventeen monasteries he visited:Xenophontos, St Paulıs, Caracalla and Docheiariou.

The only occasion on which Curzon betrayed some feelings of discomfort was at St Paulıs monastery, where he found two very fine Gospels, one of them an illuminated manuscript in old Bulgarian. Curzon actually had the nerve to ask for these when the Abbot said he wished to make him a presentation to mark his visit. The Abbot gave him both with the comment that ³we make no use of the old books. Curzon writes ³I almost felt ashamed at accepting this last book; but who could resist it, knowing that both were utterly valueless to the monks, and were not saleable in the bazaar at Constantinople, Smyrna, Salonica, or any neighbouring city? However, before I went away, as a salve to my conscience I gave some money to the church.

Curzon was an intrepid traveller, acute observer and passionate collector, but hardly a pilgrim. A very different traveller, neglected by comparison with Curzon, followed in his footsteps some 20 years later:the Rev Henry Fanshawe Tozer, fellow and tutor of Exeter College Oxford.


Tozer visited the Holy Mountain in 1853 and again in 1861, accompanied by a travelling companion a Mr Crowder, who was the bursar of Corpus Christi College Oxford. At first I assumed that someone with Tozerıs appointments and resounding name was seasoned in years, but in fact he was only 24 when he made his first visit and 32 when he made the second. Tozer was well equipped in knowledge of ancient Greek and of Byzantium, and of comparative religion. He had an enquiring mind, an acute ear and eye, and an agreeable temperament. He was not a show-off like Curzon, anddid not make fun of the monks. On the other hand he was a man of his time and his religious upbringing, which determined his view of monasticism and Orthodoxy.

Tozer published his account of Athos in 1869 as part of a much longer book Researches in the Highlands of Turkey, a title which today sounds misleading because most of Tozerıs travels were in what is now Greece, Montenegro and Macedonia. Like Curzon, he came armed with a letter from the Patriarch in Constantinople but unlike Curzon he did not make a great thing of this. He spent about two weeks on the Holy Mountain, arriving by boat from Kavalla at Vatopedi and leaving by Russian steamer from the Russian Monastery at Panteleimon. In between he visited virtually all the Monasteries and the skete of St Anne.

Tozer found the mountain and its monasteries in a pretty good state. He estimates the numbers as about 3000 monks overall, with a further 3000 Œsecularsı (kosmikoi), but adds, and how one sympathises, that they found it extremely difficult to get any accurate information on these points. He found that the monks were a mixture, not only in nationality and ethnic background, but also in learning and temperament. They included subjects of the British protectorate of the Ionian Islands. A group of Ionian Islands monks at the monastery of Koutloumousi had secured the intervention of the British Consul at Salonica with the local Pasha in a land dispute with the neighbouring monastery of Pantocratoros. Another group at St Paulıs monastery killed two fowls (³cocks, of course) in Tozerıs honour hoping to secure his intervention in another dispute, with Dionysiou monastery over a farm on the Sithonia peninsula. Land disputes are a fairly standard feature of travellersı descriptions of the Holy Mountain.

The monks whom Tozer met were mostly peasants and artisans, uneducated and ignorant but lively and well informed about developments in the outside world. At virtually all the monasteries they could get hold of newspapers, from Constantinople or Athens or even London. At the Lavra, he found that Lord Palmerstonıs ³unreasonable opposition to the Suez Canal scheme appeared for the moment to have seriously damaged the prestige of England in the East. ŒOne of the commonest questions to be asked us was, whether the Queen had recovered her health; and they were quite ready to talk on such subjects as Victor Emmanuel and the state of Italy, the war in America, and the Atlantic Telegraph, the Leviathan, as the called the ŒGreat Easternı. the Suez Canal, and similar topics of the day. All these things, no doubt, were regarded from a very distant point of view: indeed, it is the effect of a secluded spot, like the Holy make even a stranger look upon the events of the world around ³as through a veil.ı

I expect that other pilgrims will recognise the accuracy of that observation.

Tozer found that the monks at Vatopedi recalled with appreciation a recent visit by Prince Alfred, the second son of Queen Victoria. This interested me because as you know the monks of Vatopedi have maintained their connection with and interest in the Royal Family, in the person of the Prince of Wales. The Prince had actually visited Vatopedi a few weeks before my friends and I made our visit in 1998, and we heard all about it.

I wish there was such a record of Prince Alfredıs visit 150 years ago, or indeed any record, but I have not found one. What we do know is that Prince Alfred visited Greece in 1859 as a midshipman on HMS Euryalus. There is an engraving from the Illustrated London News which shows the arrival of the King and Queen of Greece at the British Legation in Athens for a ball given in his honour by the then Ambassador, Sir Thomas Wyse (himself no mean traveller and travel-writer). Apparently a good time was had by all.

The monks of Vatopedi will have followed Alfredıs subsequent career closely. He played a minor role in Greek history as one of the possible contenders for the Greek throne following the dethronement of King Otho the Bavarian monarch in 1862. He was the favoured candidate of the Greek people, including no doubt the monks. They called him ³our Alfred, or ³Alfredaki, or the ³son of the widow. but though he was run for the position at one time by Russell and Palmerston, the widow herself eventually ruled him out, saying that ³upon no earthly account and under no circumstances would she ever consent to it.Given the subsequent ups and downs of the Greek monarchy, she had a point. Alfred charmed everyone in Athens. As King of Greece he would have been well placed to offer his patronage to Vatopedi, as his great great nephew does today.

Tozer gives some good vignettes of life on the mountain. On arrival at the jetty below Simopetra, a monk shouted up through a ³speaking-trumpet for mules, which duly appeared to carry up the bags. At the Lavra ³during the night the neighbouring hillsides frequently resounded with the loud shouts and discharges of fire-arms, intended to drive away the numerous jackals which prey upon the vineyards. The Librarian at Dionysiou grills him on why Anglican priests shave their beards, ³not suspecting how soon the Anglican clergy might be converted to the practice of the Orthodox. (Is there a reference there to a debate within the Church of England which someone can elucidate?) He comments on the usual subjects which were a trope for all travellers: the avaton or rule of no female; the food: the precipitous mule paths; the relics, where he shows some appreciation of Byzantine art but no real understanding of its innerness.

But what of the monks? Here is Tozer on an encounter with a hermit. Between Docheiariou and Kastamonitou his dragoman looks up some steep cliffs and sees a man standing:

Guessing what he might be, I dismounted, and scrambled up 20 or 30 feet to the mouth of a cave, where I found a dark hollow-cheeked man, clothed in a single garment of rough cloth. In the inner part of the cave, which was divided off from the rest by a low wall, was his bed of straw, and one book of prayers was lying on the wall. In this place he lived both winter and summer. He came originally from Argyro-Castro, in Albania, and had served for some years as a corporal in the army of the King of Greece; but after a time he was seized with a desire for the life of retirement, and came as a caloyer to the skete of St Anne. After remaining there for three years, he devoted himself to the life of a hermit, in which he had passed his time for seven years. His food was brought to him from the neighbouring monasteries. He spoke distinctly, like a man who had had some education: and slowly, as one unaccustomed to conversation. As we were looking down on the tumbling waves, I said to him before leaving, ³here you have near you God and the sea. ³ah! he replied, ³we are all sinners, as if to deprecate the idea that he was on a higher spiritual level than other men. His answer illustrates the entire absence of pretension which we observed amongst the monks: they never represented themselves as more learned, or more religious, or having higher aims, than was really the case; and when they had devoted themselves to the monastic life from mixed motives, they did not hesitate to avow it.

That is an attractive picture. In general, Tozer gets on well with those he meets and is appreciative of the generosity of the monks. He talks to them about union of the churches. He tries to understand their calling. But when he comes to sum up his views on the Holy Mountain, it is as if he loses nerve, and fails to give the monks the credit which his various encounters with them would suggest. Here is what he writes:

Our estimate of them will vary, as we fix our thoughts on the present or the past. Probably a considerable number of the monks regard the monastic system in no other light than as a source of personal benefit to themselves. The theory however, which the more thoughtful of them maintain is this, - that these bodies serve as an example of holy life, as they contain a number of men devoted to piety and religion; that they maintain intact the old customs and principles; that their constant prayers are a support to the Church; and that in prosperous times they become seats of learning. How far this theory, even supposing it to be tenable, is carried out in practice, may be gathered from the fact that our dragoman, a trustworthy man, assured us that he had never heard so much foul and disgusting language as in the conversation of the lower monks, among whom he was thrown. We are not to suppose that this applies to the conversation of the ordinary monks, but to a certain number of mauvais sujets ..Take a number of uneducated peasants from any country, separate them from female society, and give them a certain amount of leisure; the result will be, that even the purest religious influences, unalloyed by superstition, will not prevent a large amount of evil from being fostered among them. Notwithstanding that we find much that is pleasing in the life of the monks, and that strict morality is enforced by the rigid discipline, yet we cannot but draw the conclusion that eastern monastic life has here been tried on a large scale, is displayed to the greatest advantage - and has failed.

Wait a minute, one wants to say: what does he mean by failure or success? Tozer continues:

But, whatever may be their faults, and however false, in a healthy state of the church, the monastic system may be, yet, looking to the past, we must remember that they were once to a certain extent strongholds of learning, and still more strongholds of faith in the midst of unbelievers. To one who reads, however cursorily, the history of the Greek Church, the great source of wonder is, not that its faith has been overlaid by superstition, but that it has retained its Christianity at all: and to this the monasteries have in no slight degree contributed. Besides this, they have served as refuges for the persecuted, and for those perplexed by the distractions and confusions of the world. Thousands have been saved from suicide by their means. And from this point of view the need of them cannot be said to have wholly passed away; for as long as the Turks remain in Europe, the Christians will be persecuted, and as long as they are persecuted, they will need a refuge.

It is a difficult matter to speculate on what may be the future of the Holy Mountain, Tozer goes on. It was a subject on which we often talked to the monks, and they invariably connected their own future with the political future of Turkey. When the happy period arrives, to which all Greeks look forward, when they are to regain Constantinople, Athos, they think, may once more become the learned place which they believe it to have been in former times. Yet some of them were not slow to see that freedom would open to men various sources of occupation, which would cause them to be less disposed for the monastic calling. And he concludes, We should not wish to see so venerable an institution destroyed, root and branch, if it is possible by any means to adapt it to the exigencies of a coming time. Let us hope that its suitableness for a seat of learning, from its central, healthy, and secluded position, may hereafter be appreciated, and that its fine buildings may not be left to the ravages of time, to the unavailing regret of future generations.

Tozer saw monasticism not as standing outside time but as serving a temporary and worldly purpose. He could not see the value in an unchanging monastic life, but wanted progress. He calls the monks ³uninstructed and unprogressive². But his sympathy and curiosity keep him from patronizing them.

If Tozer was unable to enter fully into the life of the monks of Athos,(nor perhaps would be have wanted to do so);he does convey more of the reality of that life than Robert Curzon does. Tozer was a pilgrim.

Edward Lear

Between Tozerıs two visits, the poet and painter Edward Lear visited the Holy Mountain. We have a particular interest in Lear because four of his watercolours hang in the British Embassy Residence in Athens, and two of them were of Athos: one a charming drawing of a Lavra, the other a distant prospect of the Holy Mountain from the north. Both are reproduced in my book The British Embassy Athens.

Learıs travels in the Levant are well documented, in his own journals and letters. He drew these two pictures in September 1856, his only visit to the Holy Mountain. Lear was a prolific painter who wanted to add to his portfolio of pictures which record, as no other painter recorded, Greek landscape and buildings in the mid 19th century. And he needed to sell the results so as to make his living. The visit to Athos was successful in that Lear came back with 50 splendid paintings.

But the atmosphere of Athonite monasticism was not at all to Learıs taste. Indeed as a progressive Victorian rationalist, he was repelled by what he took to be the beliefs of the monks

Here is what he wrote to his sister Ann:

I always asked to see the churches - more to please my hosts than myself, - for I can assure you 20 Greek churches - one just like another - are a task - & I listened meekly to the dreadful nonsense stories they told me of this or that picture. One floated from Jerusalem by sea; - one cried when the Turks came; another bled at some apropos time; a 4th - a Pagan having poked his finger at him, held the finger so tight it was obliged to be cut off - & a 5th has a picture which they declare to have been painted by the Almighty himself!!! As it is about only 8 or 900 years old & very ill done - the blasphemy is almost lost in the absurdity of the matter. Oh those candles! & ostrich eggs! - & silver and paintings!! - oh Holy Mountain! what have I not suffered to get drawings of you! -...

Lear was particularly offended by the ban on women.

However wondrous and picturesque the exterior & interior of the monasteries, & however abundantly & exquisitely glorious & stupendous the scenery of the mountain, I would not go again to the Aghios Oros for any money, so gloomy, so shockingly unnatural, so lonely, so lying, so unatoneably odious seems to me all the atmosphere of such monkery. That half of our species which it is natural to every man to cherish & love best, ignored, prohibited and abhorred - all life spent in everlasting repetition of monotonous prayers, no sympathy with ones fellow-beans of any nation, class or age. The name of Christ on every garment and at every tongueıs end, but his maxims trodden under foot, Godıs world and will turned upside down, maimed,& caricatured: - if this I say be Xtianity let Xtianity be rooted out as soon as possible. More pleasing in the sight of the Almighty I really believe, & more like what Jesus Christ intended man to become, is an honest Turk with 6 wives, or a Jew working hard to feed his little old cloı babbies, than these muttering, miserable, mutton-hating, man-avoiding, misogynic, morose, & merriment-marring, monotoning, many-mule-making, mocking, mournful, minced-fish & marmalade masticating Monx. Poor old pigs! Yet one or two were kind enough in their way, dirty as they were: but it is not them, it is their system I rail at.

Despite his epilepsy, Lear was an intrepid traveller. He was also a master painter and poet, and cat lover. His comments on Athos were made in private letters, and I imagine that in published form he would have written less abrasively. The monks will have forgiven him, no doubt.

The 20th century

There is relatively little written by British travellers about the Holy Mountain between Tozerıs time and the incorporation of the Holy Mountain in the Greek state after the Balkan Wars. The thorough but rather plodding account of Athelstan Riley published in 1887 is an exception.

The period between the two world wars however saw a flowering of Athonite literature: Robert Byron made his two journeys to the Mountain in 1925 and 1926 and published The Station in 1928.10 The following year F W Hasluck, Librarian at the British School at Athens from 1906 -15, and Fellow of Kingıs College Cambridge, published his informative book on Athos and its Monasteries. In 1936 R M Dawkins, Bywater Professor of Modern and Byzantine Greek at Oxford and himself a former Director of the British School, published his book on The Monks of Athos.11 A very different sort of account was published by the eccentric musician Ralph Brewster in 1935 under the title The 6,000 Beards of Athos.

Another visitor who got to know the mountain well was the remarkable Scotsman and Quaker Sydney Loch, who settled in the Prosphori - now Ouranoupolis - tower in 1928. Loch had come to Greece to work on relief and settlement of refugees after the Asia Minor disaster, and stayed. He died in 1954 and his book Athos: the Holy Mountain was edited by his wife, who stayed on in Ouranoupolis, and published in 1957. A new edition was published in Thessaloniki by Molho in 1971, and if you are very lucky you can still find a copy in Molhoıs wonderful bookshop.

The books of Byron and of Dawkins are both a classic part of the literature, Byronıs because of the enthusiasm with which he opened up for the general reader the glories of Byzantine Athos, with the help of David Talbot Riceıs photography. The Station is a young manıs book and overwritten in places. Byronıs character must have sometimes seemed overbearing. But it should not be out of print. Robert Byron too came to a sad end and an early one, being drowned in 1941 in the Mediterranean when the troopship carrying him to Egypt was sunk.

Dawkins was a great scholar of modern Greek language and literature. His book is based on various visits to the Mountain over a period of 30 years from 1905 to 1935. It purports to be an account of the legends of the Holy Mountain, and it is that. But it is much more. It gives an insight into the life and thoughts of the monks which few others can match and which owes much to Dawkinsıs perfect command of Greek and profound knowledge of Greek folk lore and story which found expression later in his Modern Greek Folk Tales. Joice NanKivell Loch describes in her own memoirs how Dawkins used to stay in the Lochsı great tower while working on his book, Œmost attractive, full of fire, as active as a goat although long in yearsı. He argued vigorously with Sydney Loch over disputed points, and lit the huge, dim, shadowy, black-beamed kitchen with his enthusiasm.

Brewsterıs book on the 6000 beards is a curiosity which strangely, unlike Robert Byronıs, is in print. Brewster was a young man too, a lovable and original figure, who travelled on Athos with a young Greek companion called Yiorgos in the 1920s. He writes simply, amusingly and observantly. The book departs from the norm in that, largely through the experiences of Yiorgos, it touches on the question of homosexuality on the Holy Mountain. Brewster himself was homosexual. His book is mildly shocking if it is true, and shocking in another way if it is not true.

Philip Sherrard

Last of my travellers is Philip Sherrard. Philip Sherrard spent much of his adult life in Greece, settling near Limni in Euboiea. He became a member of the Orthodox Church. He never described the Holy Mountain in a conventional ³travel book². To do so would have seemed to him to reduce the experience of the mountain to ³tourism² which he despised. He makes a strong distinction between tourism and pilgrimage, which he thought was in danger of being undermined by the modern world. But he visited the Mountain many times and wrote extensively about it.

Philip Sherrardıs writings are probably the best general introduction in English to the reality of monasticism on the Holy Mountain. Philip succeeded in entering imaginatively into the life of the monks. He was far from being a monk himself, but he seems to understand what it means to be one.

Much of Philip Sherrardıs working life was devoted to propounding the organic unity and deep spiritual roots of the Greek Orthodox tradition and of what he saw as a Œtrueı Greek tradition represented by Sikelianos, Seferis and others. The obverse of this was his scathing attack on western materialism, rationalism and the scientific view of life. As Bishop Kallistos suggested in his excellent obituary of Philip in the Friendsı journal, this often led him to exaggeration and sometimes led him astray. A good example of his thought is his comment on the Filioque question, that ³in that issue are implicit two Œworld-viewsı, and it is only the acceptance by western Europe of one rather than the other of those views that has made possible the conception, and setting up, some thousand years later, of such an organization as that of the United Nations.

Applied to the Holy Mountain, Philip Sherrardıs view of life and spiritual death serves him well because here is a community devoted to what Philip believed in and was therefore well placed to interpret.

His account of the monksı life, for example, conveys its concrete and at times oppressive detail as well as its spiritual content. He explains how the monks pass through constant repetition of routine actions, prayers, blessings, ritual, towards and into a life of contemplation:

Each act, steeped thus in symbolic or ritual meaning, is charged with a potential that goes far beyond its mere physical performance. It is linked to the most profound realities of the spiritual world. Submitting as though he had no higher aspirations and with a kind of obtuse compliance to the endless repetitive details of this pattern, with nothing demanded of him than that he should copy them without question or any long-winded explanation, he gradually discovers in the course of years that the form in which his life is immersed no longer oppresses but liberates. Through the mastery of these forms and their meticulous observation, he grows daily more capable of letting their impersonal inspiration reach him unimpeded by irrelevance or self-gratification. Their performance, his whole devotion to their traditional discipline, induces in him that vital loosening and equilibrium, that recollectedness and presence of mind, without which no spiritual work may be done. In this way he is brought into the right frame of mind for the next stage, that in which object and subject, the formal act and the spiritual content, begin to flow together without break; in which imitation is no longer so much a matter of copying the outer pattern, as of consciously learning to exercise control over the inner ways of concentration and selflessness. The monk is now brought face to face with new and unsuspected possibilities; and he may, if his strength is adequate, set out on the road to the mastery of that art of all arts and science of all sciences, the contemplative life.

That seems to me a good explanation of the routine of the monkıs life which can seem very strange. It is much easier to understand than the passage which follows, on the life of contemplation; but that is because the content of this life is virtually impossible to convey except to someone who has already experienced something of it. .

Philip Sherrard was acutely concerned about the threat to the Holy Mountain from modern technology, science and materialism, symbolised by the opening up of the mountain to roads and 4 wheel vehicles. He saw these things as threatening not only the spirit of pilgrimage, which demands time and separation from the material, but also the values of monasticism itself.

Philip Sherrard noted of the revival of the mountain that for the moment, Athos was holding its own against the ³insidious infiltrations of state and commerce which threaten to turn it into a glorified Byzantine museum and a centre for tourism.² But he was not so sure whether it would continue to hold its own against modernity and materialism. He thought that this depended on whether the monastic community remained true to its spiritual purpose. To the extent that it lost its sense of spiritual vocation it would permit roads and machines and all the rest. ³At the moment,² Sherrard wrote, ³things appear to be in the balance...

Indeed, things are always in the balance. You and I would probably prefer an Athos without motor roads. But we donıt live there. As Philip Sherrard said, it is up to the monks.

Travel and travellers

All my travellers have enriched the literature of Athos and left us something of value. The impression they leave is one of something unchanging at the heart of the Holy Mountain, despite the varying pressures of the world outside and the pressures from within on the monastic system, despite the ups and downs of individual monasteries and the varying health of monasticism itself. Travellers themselves sometimes see these pressures as more destructive then they have proved to be. Many predicted in the 1930s to 1950s that the mountain was dying. A former British Ambassador who paid an official visit in 1960 took this view.17 An earlier case was the Greek-American sociologist Choukas, who wrote in 1935 that the monastic community was facing ³probable extinction²:18 the next generation of monks would have to close up shop and go home. Such predictions or fears did not seem at all absurd in the depressed context of their times. But how wrong they were.

Moreover, although travellers like to say that things are not what they were (Curzon is a particularly egregious example, saying that in a few years more every country would be alike) the experience of travelling on the Holy Mountain has changed very little between John Covelıs time and our own. Then and now the traveller encounters hospitality, variety, natural beauty, and a sense of timelessness and stillness.

The traveller now as then will encounter also the mysterious and marvellous, and will have to judge whether to express scepticism, like Lear, or whether to believe, or simply to suspend belief and accept. Athelstan Riley tied himself in knots by trying to find a middle way. He writes that the Greeks tend towards credulity and the British towards scepticism. ³the true position lies somewhere between the two extremes, and to reach this mean I would urge the old philosopherıs advice on both Greeks and Anglicans, ŒResist your natural tendency and lean towards the opposite extremeı, in the case of an alleged miracle advising the Eastern (maintaining all due respect for authority) to question before believing, and the Western (without abandoning his love for truth) to believe before questioning.ı He then appends a sort of calculus or truth table which gives guidance on how much credence to give depending on the probability of the event.

I would not like to apply such a calculus to the numinous story told by our President, Sir Steven Runciman, about the cats of Athos:

About a hundred years ago, said the monk - but like all good Athonites time meant little to him - the mountain suffered from a constant plague of snakes. Cats were needed to deal with them. But they had to be tom-cats; and the supply was always having to be renewed, and the cat-merchants of the mainland kept raising the price higher and higher till the monasteries could no longer afford to buy any more. The Holy Synod met and decided to dedicate an evening of prayer to the Mother of God to ask for her assistance. This was done; and a few mornings later it was found that all the tom-cats on the Mountain had given birth to kittens. Great was the rejoicing until it was revealed that half of these kittens were female. What was to be done about them? The holy Synod met hastily again. Some monks maintained that they females must be drowned at once. Others suggested that they might be sold; as miraculously born kittens they would fetch a high price. But the oldest and the wisest of the monks pointed out that it was the Mother of God herself who had provided them. She therefore could have no objection to them. Besides, if the monasteries got rid of them the same crisis would arise again in a few yearsı time; and the Mother of God might not be willing to perform the miracle twice. So we permit she-cats, said the monk.

Michael Llewellyn Smith

Home page       Day 1       Day 2       Day 3       Day 4


These pages posted as a public service by Internetworks Ltd
of Epsom , England in July 2001